PHILADELPHIA — In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s here, as in many big cities, there were dozens of independent men’s clothing stores selling tailored suits, sport coats, dress shirts and “furnishings” (socks, ties, pocket squares) to dapper professionals. Among these were the Arrow Store, Morevilles, Diamonds, Irving’s and Jacob Reed’s Sons. Today, professionals no longer need be dapper, and only one store from that period remains in business: Boyds. Like the Liberty Bell and the stone Rocky Steps, Boyds is a local landmark, and one equally impervious to the shifting seasons.
For 80 years, the family-owned business has outfitted lawyers, bankers, doctors, politicians and famous athletes, with all-American brands like Hickey-Freeman, groovy European labels like Pierre Cardin and Tiger of Sweden and lately high-end Italian suiting and sportswear from Brioni, Isaia and Brunello Cucinelli.
When the former basketball star Julius Erving flew into the city for a visit from the Bahamas during the January cold snap and found himself in need of warmer clothes, he called Boyds, as he has since back when he was Dr. J., slamming dunks for the 76ers.
“Boyds was the place to shop,” said Mr. Erving, who all these years later still deals with the same salesman, Bill Bolling. “They always had somebody who would make sure everything was just so: sleeve length, cuff length. They know what you like.”
Little about the store has changed, though the address has: the longtime Market Street location was redeveloped by the city to build a convention center in 1990, and since then, Boyds has been housed in a grand, five-story limestone building, 1818 Chestnut Street, near Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphians, or a certain affluent segment of them, regard Boyds as a destination, a place to drive to on a Saturday from their homes on the Main Line. The store is where a young man goes to buy his wedding suit, and returns 30 years later, grayer, wealthier, thicker in the middle, this time bringing his son to buy his wedding suit.
Such tradition and continuity across generations was once commonplace in retail apparel. But in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time.
Dolce by Dumbwaiter
There is a parking lot for customers across from the store, in a Center City location that a developer would pay millions to build atop. There is a fifth-floor workshop with 39 full-time tailors and pressers who do free alterations, sending finished garments down to the sales floors in a dumbwaiter.
There are salespeople, several in fact, who have worked at Boyds since wide lapels were in style. Impeccably dressed and coifed, they stand beside counters and clothing racks, at the ready to give solicitous service to the next person who steps off the elevator. Mr. Bolling, a trim, soft-spoken man of 60, maintains for his best clients a notebook, into which he records the details of their every purchase and tucks a fabric swatch.
“When a gentleman is buying four, five garments a season, it’s easy to get something too similar,” Mr. Bolling said. The notebook preserves “a perfect history. It’s giving their wardrobe maximum attention.”
Out-of-towners who happen into this retail anachronism tend to react first with astonishment, followed by a sigh of pleasure.
“It’s how it should be,” said Philip Scotti, the owner of P. J. Clarke’s, the Manhattan saloon, who on a recent Friday was in the men’s sportswear department. “They actually wait on you.”
Mr. Scotti was picking up some jeans, slacks and a sport coat. He was also busting the chops of his favorite salesman, Jon Segal, a native Philadelphian who bought his bar mitzvah suit and shoes at Boyds. Thirty-five years later, Mr. Segal, 48, works alongside the man who sold them to him.
Mr. Scotti, who is opening an outpost of P. J. Clarke’s in Philadelphia, has been coming in to shop whenever he is in town on business. Though he has plenty of options at home in New York, he prefers Boyds, he said, because the treatment is attentive but also laid-back, owing to the personal approach. Returns, for instance, require a simple phone call. “I can imagine calling Barneys and getting 17 different people on the line,” Mr. Scotti said.
He added, “I wish all stores were like this. There’s not many left.”
It’s very possible that Boyds isn’t just one of a dying breed of old-fashioned retailers, however. Given its scale (50,000 square feet of selling space over four floors), and the level of service it provides, and the tailor shop and complimentary parking lot, and the near century of independent operation by the same family, it may be the only clothing store of its kind anywhere in the country.
Last week, Boyds unveiled a new women’s ready-to-wear, handbag and shoe department that covers the entire first floor and mezzanine level. It’s the first phase of a $10 million renovation by DAS Architects, a local design firm, intended to modernize and lighten the interior, with its heavy Greek columns and dark-wood cabinetry. The other, more pressing goal is to bring in female shoppers.
A former vice president of handbags and accessories for Bergdorf Goodman, Deborah Soss, has been hired to introduce Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and other luxury fashion labels, along with new categories like evening wear, gowns and designer and vintage jewelry.
Boyds has in fact sold women’s wear since 1993, but never with the focus, success or renown equal to its men’s wear, which accounts for 80 percent of its business. In 2005 the store introduced a jeweler and a cafe run by the French chef George Perrier, of the famous Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec-Fin, to alter the entrenched perception of Boyds as an old boys’ club, a place where female shoppers weren’t understood or entirely welcomed. It didn’t work.
Even today, many people are surprised to learn the store sells woman’s wear, which Kent Gushner, the president and chief executive of Boyds, finds maddening.
Meet the Gushners
Mr. Gushner, who is 58 and carries himself with genial authority, belongs to the third generation of Gushner ownership. His grandfather, Alexander Gushner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, started with a tiny cigar shop, branched into selling shirts and ties to office workers, then opened Boyds with his brother in 1938. He named it Boyds after a popular theater, and because it didn’t sound Jewish.
Kent’s father, Gerald Gushner, poured his life into making Boyds a success. Gerald, who died two years ago at 86, is described variously by the employees who worked for him as a “dynamo,” “demanding” and “one of the best retailers of his generation.”
“He had a will to win that was tremendous,” Kent said. “A passion to the point that some people would say it wasn’t normal — including my mother.”
Kent started working at Boyds on weekends when he was 13, not because he was made to, but because he found the store an exciting place to be. In those days, Boyds catered to doctors and dentists, but also to flashy, Damon Runyonesque characters, guys who might’ve owned a taproom, taken a number, driven a Cadillac.
Alexander, by then retired to Florida, would constantly phone Gerald at home for reports. Kent’s childhood was spent hearing them discussing Boyds late into the night. “It was their life,” Kent said.
Boyds became Kent’s life, too; he and his two brothers-in-law purchased the store from his father and uncle in 2004. The next phase of their renovation, which should be finished this fall, will bring in more denim, street wear labels like Stone Island and designer men’s sportswear from Thom Browne and others. Kent’s son, Alex Gushner, 28, who joined the business in 2014 after working briefly in New York for the Italian label Ermenegildo Zegna, is helping to lead the remerchandising effort. Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Alex spends more time kibitzing with customers on the selling floor than inside his office.
The changes, including an e-commerce site added last fall, are a recognition that Boyds’ survival into a fifth and sixth generation lies not in more coordinating suits and ties. Millennial men of means and power are as likely to wear a Supreme hoodie to work as a suit. And virtually no store of Boyds’ scale earns so little of its revenues from women’s clothes.
“We don’t sell nearly as many suits today as we used to, not even close,” Kent said, and though Boyds remains very profitable, the store had to lay off six sales associates after the 2008 financial crisis.
Kent added: “We have to evolve and position ourselves for the future. Otherwise, we’re on our way to oblivion. We’re another store on the side of the road. It’s just that simple.”
The Pageantry of Sales
To understand how Boyds has avoided oblivion thus far, it’s instructive to spend an afternoon on the selling floors. The revenue engine has long been the second-floor tailored-clothing department, divided between dress shirts, ties and other accessories on one side, and suits and sport jackets opposite. The suit selection is vast, with racks stretching farther and farther back, until the $5,000 Brionis, which, like men’s mink coats, hang in a semiprivate anteroom.
The operation has a choreographed precision. Chris Phillips, the 43-year-old men’s tailored clothing manager, on this day stood near the elevator. It was his job to greet customers, determine their needs and spin them to the right salesperson. What happened next, Mr. Phillips called “the selling ceremony.”
Soon the pageant was playing out. A middle-aged man whose belly strained against the buttons of his dress shirt had been presented, like a gift, to John Clementi, a white-haired salesman dressed elegantly in a navy pinstriped Isaia suit and lavender tie. The customer needed a roomier blazer because he’d put on weight. His budget was under $1,000.
“How do you think this would look with jeans?” the man asked, trying on Mr. Clementi’s pick, a blended wool, silk and linen blazer from Boyds’ in-house label, Trussini.
“Perfect,” Mr. Clementi said. “That would look perfect in jeans.”
“I like the light weight, and I don’t have one like this,” the man said decisively. “O.K., let’s measure this up.”
Generally speaking, the men who come to Boyds aren’t there to browse. Overscheduled high earners, they view clothes shopping as one more task to be efficiently completed, an attitude to which every Boyds employee is attuned. The master tailor, Sergio Martins, a Portuguese immigrant whose wife, Ana Martins, is the head women’s tailor, was promptly summoned from his nearby station. The customer asked if the blazer could be altered and ready for pickup early the following week.
“Yes,” Mr. Clementi said without hesitation. “Consider it done.”
Mr. Clementi would mail a handwritten thank-you note to the man, with his business card tucked inside, as the opening gesture of what he hoped would be a lucrative, lasting relationship. He mentioned a Manhattan real-estate bigwig whom he’s been attending to since 1981, back when the man was a baby-faced student at the Wharton School.
“The day I met him, he came in and initially asked for someone else,” said Mr. Clementi, who seemingly has photographic recall of every transaction over 39 years.
Mr. Clementi told an old war story. “One time, I had a guy, a car dealer from South Jersey, who was just hitting his stride,” he said. “He came in and bought 44 garments in one evening. Not just the 44 garments. The shirts to go with them, the socks. Soup to nuts. And when he came to pick them up, I had a new line in, and he bought all nine of the new styles.”
Even among the newer generations with their preference for experiences over material goods, Mr. Clementi still has his Paul Manafort-level spenders, like the biotech executive who has been known to drop mid-five-figures in one spree, and who was scheduled to come in the next day. The guy was dressed frumpy that first visit, a baggy three-button suit. But Mr. Clementi noticed the shoes — “John Lobb, $1,000, handmade English shoes. So I knew, this guy is capable.”
Certain characteristics of Philadelphia, like the big law community and the way families remain in the area over generations like it’s a small town, have helped to shield Boyds from the worst of the retail apocalypse. And, too, men and women still need dress clothes, and tailoring isn’t so easily done, or done well anyway, through a web browser.
A Suitless Future?
It was the season at Boyds when customers were coming in to be outfitted for summer weddings. Two of these included a 28-year-old groom, Seth Finkelstein, and his 66-year-old father, Joseph.
When Joseph was a young lawyer, in the late 1970s, a colleague at his firm told him, “Go to Boyds.” Hardly a fashion plate — “I’m not an easy fit. I’m also colorblind,” he said — he found the staff willing to be remedial style teachers.
“They would write on index cards, ‘This is the color of the suit. These are the three shirts and ties that go with it,’” Joseph recalled. “I had a stack of these index cards. They would chart it out for me.”
Attention on the women’s side is just as doting. In the words of Ramonita Farnesi, who was the first sales associate hired for the women’s department 25 years ago, her customers receive “the ‘Pretty Woman’ treatment.”
Laura LaRosa, who works in the investment and wealth management field in Philadelphia, buys her business suits and black-tie formal wear at Boyds, and if she is considering a dress that one of her colleagues has already purchased from the store, Ms. LaRosa said, a salesperson will tip her off, so she doesn’t show up in the same outfit.
“It’s an individualized shopping experience,” Ms. LaRosa said. “They know what you like, they know what will look good on you. It’s difficult to find that at a Neiman’s in the mall.”
It remains to be seen if these customers will spend big on the snazzy new lines coming into stock, but their loyalty to the old familiar showplace is something fierce.
Marc Brownstein, the president and chief executive of the Brownstein Group, a Philadelphia-based branding agency, dates his first Boyds shopping trip to high school, back in the ’80s, and now especially appreciates its delivery service to home or office, and the text messages he gets from the store when a brand is going on sale.
Mr. Brownstein believes Boyds has survived for so long through “brains and grit,” sheer will.
“The family just outthinks other retailers,” Mr. Brownstein said of the Gushners. “They’ll deliver to your house, to your office. You park for free. You know what parking costs in the center of Philadelphia? They’re going to outwork and out-service everyone else.”
In discussing the old days, Mr. Clementi recalled how on a good Saturday, in high season, the suit department would sell 15 or 16 full racks of tailored clothing. “At one time, in all these office buildings, every guy had to wear a suit,” Mr. Clementi said.
The suits on the office workers have largely disappeared, along with the stores that sold them. “We’ve outlasted them all,” he said.
Did Mr. Clementi ever fear he would be like one of the salesmen at the Arrow Store or Morevilles, out of a job? The equivalent of a typewriter salesman at the dawn of the Macintosh?
“Never,” he said, without blinking.